It’s all well and good to talk about ideal scenarios when it comes to paying off your student loans. You’ll graduate, you’ll start repayment on a plan that works perfectly with your income and budget, and you’ll chip away at your debt consistently and aggressively until your loans are paid off or forgiven.
Well, that sounds fantastic! And in a perfect world, it’s exactly what would happen to every bright-eyed college graduate making his or her first foray out into the workforce.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of speed bumps between the average college grad and student loan forgiveness or repayment in full. There are income gaps, unemployment, and emergencies. There’s confusion about loan products and repayment options, and maybe most of all, there’s a lack of motivation to aggressively hit that debt as hard as possible, every month.
The If-Then solution
Modern psychology offers a great methodology for tackling student loan debt with specificity and aggression. It’s called the If-Then Solution, and it works something like this:
- “Ifs” are trigger events. They can be times and places, like “The 1st of every month,” or they can be events, like “When I start receiving a regular paycheck.”
- “Thens” are the thing you will do when the “if” happens. Here are a few examples unrelated to student loan repayment:
- "If I want a donut, then I will first eat an apple."
- “If I have have more than one drink, then I will get a ride home.”
- “If I finish my work for the evening, then I’ll watch tv.”
If-Then statements work because they help your brain link behaviors to situations without having to think too hard about them. Making a commitment, as in the first scenario above, to eat well creates a definitive rule for you to follow. It’s an infinitely better plan than, for instance, “I’ll try to be healthy.”
Applying If-Then to student loan repayment
Creating, in the complex workings of your brain, a successful template for student loan repayment will go a long way towards easing the long-term stresses of the process. The trick is to find a system to which you can commit, and the If-Then solution works perfectly. Here’s an outline:
- “If I earn $x.xx in a month, then I will add $y.yy to my minimum payment.” Whether you’re an hourly wage earner or a salaried employee, your monthly disposable income will fluctuate somewhat based on your expenses. Commit to an if-then statement that directs extra funds toward your principal, and you’ll make significant strides toward early repayment. This is one of the single best things you can do to battle your debt, so make it a priority!
- “If I earn a raise, then that money will be applied to my debt.” Same principle as above, but with perhaps a more fixed contingency. After all, do you really need to spend money that you lived without before your raise?
- “If it’s worth giving up my federal loan protections, then I will refinance.” This same formula could be reapplied to include “if the savings are substantial enough to justify it” or “if my high interest rates can be reduced.” Regardless, the idea here is to weigh the benefits of refinancing and to commit to taking advantage of those benefits. While refinancing carries some risk (the federal loan protections referenced above disappear, and credit is a consideration for applicants), there is quite a bit to be gained.
- And don't forget to include if/then statements about unnecessary spending to help you budget more towards your student debt: "if I want to buy xxx, then I will wait 48 hours and still see if I still feel I need it (and that I can really afford it!) before deciding to purchase." This approach to purchasing can go a long way towards padding your wallet.
The If-Then formula works for plenty of life’s obstacles! Try it out when starting an exercise regiment, a diet, taking on a new job, or evaluating a financial decision. And put it to use on those student loans, to give yourself the psychological edge that might just make all the difference.